Harry Dean Stanton, the legendary character actor and offbeat leading man who starred in Repo Man, Paris, Texas, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Big Love in a career that spanned over seven decades, has died at the age of 91.
Director David Lynch, who cast Stanton in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Wild at Heart, The Straight Story and the recent Twin Peaks: The Return, said of the actor in a statement, “The great Harry Dean Stanton has left us. There went a great one. There’s nobody like Harry Dean. Everyone loved him. And with good reason. He was a great actor (actually beyond great) – and a great human being – so great to be around him!!! You are really going to be missed Harry Dean!!! Loads of love to where you are now!!!”
“Harry Dean Stanton was a wonderful man, kind and full of humor. He was also a great actor. Goodbye, Harry Dean. Rest in peace,” wrote director John Carpenter, whose Christine and Escape From New York featured Stanton in supporting roles.
A native of Kentucky and a veteran of the Battle of Okinawa, Stanton spent the early part of his career churning out bit parts in TV Westerns and small but vital roles in films like Cool Hand Luke, In the Heat of the Night and Kelly’s Heroes.
The actor, a favorite of filmmakers like Monte Hellman, David Lynch, John Carpenter and writer Sam Shepard, saw his career bloom in the Seventies thanks to meatier roles in films like Hellman’s Cockfighter and Two-Lane Blacktop, Cisco Pike, Dillinger, Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (where Stanton befriended Bob Dylan), The Godfather Part II and Alien.
Stanton credited his part as gangster Blind Dick Riley in 1962’s Ride in the Whirlwind – directed by Hellman and written by Jack Nicholson – as his breakout role. “[Nicholson said] ‘Harry, I’ve written this part… I want you to play a gangster, he wears a derby and an eyepatch,” Stanton recounted. “He said ‘I don’t want you to do anything. Just play yourself totally.’ I thought, ‘That’s a load off my mind.’ And I’ve been working ever since.”
“I’ve worked with some of the best of them,” Stanton told The Guardian in 2013. “Not just directors like Sam Peckinpah and David Lynch, but writers like Sam Shepard and singers like Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. I could have made it as a singer, but I went with acting, surrendered to it, in a way.”
Stanton often portrayed memorable characters that walked the fringes of society, like a blind preacher on skid row in Wise Blood, “Brain” in Escape From New York, the mysterious Old Man in Fool for Love and, most memorably, Bud in Repo Man, where Stanton plays a grizzled, speed-snorting repo man who takes Emilio Estevez’s character under his wing. “A repo man’s life is always intense,” Stanton’s character says of his “Repo Code.” “A repo man spends his life getting into tense situations.”
“Harry Dean Stanton had the best line in Christine: ‘I’m selling’ this shithole and buyin’ a condo.’ Rest in peace, HD. You were great,” Stephen King tweeted. (The author later realized, “George Lebay said that, played by Roberts Blossom.
Well, I fucked up. But Harry Dean SHOULD have said it.”)
The actor became such a magnet for acclaimed films that film critic Roger Ebert once authored the “Stanton-Walsh Rule” which stated, “No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad. An exception was Chattahoochee, starring Walsh. Stanton’s record is still intact.”
Stanton’s most acclaimed role came in 1984 with Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, where the actor played an amnesiac slowly piecing his life together following a traumatic experience.
“The whole thing was an organic kind of thing,” Stanton said of the Paris, Texas role. “Sam [Shepard, Paris, Texas‘ screenwriter] and I got drunk, we were drinking tequila listening to a Mexican singer in Santa Fe, and we were talking and [I said] ‘I would like to do something with some beauty to it. I’m talking like that. I needed something to do that was worthwhile… A couple of weeks later, Sam called me and said ‘I want you to play the lead.'”
The film won the Palme d’or at Cannes Film Festival and further jettisoned Stanton’s career, with the actor cast in more commercial films like Red Dawn, Pretty in Pink and Dream a Little Dream.
Even late in his career, Stanton continued to make lasting impressions with cameos in films like Avengers and Seven Psychopaths as well as Bob Dylan’s “Dreamin’ of You” video; Stanton previously starred in Dylan’s still-unavailable 1978 film Renaldo & Clara. In the 2000s, the actor had a reoccurring role as the bigamist patriarch Roman Grant in the HBO series Big Love.
Stanton was also known for his close circle of similarly Hollywood maverick friends, a group that included Jack Nicholson – Stanton was his roommate and the best man at Nicholson’s marriage to Sandra Knight in 1962 – as well as Marlon Brando, Sean Penn, Johnny Depp and Kris Kristofferson. Stanton, who had a cameo in the film version of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, also performed “Danny Boy” at Hunter S. Thompson’s funeral. “This is the finest gentleman that has ever survived,” Johnny Depp also said of Stanton.
In addition to his movie career, Stanton also had a lifelong love of music, frequently playing in Los Angeles with his Harry Stanton Band. His debut album, Partly Fiction, was released in 2014, soon after the documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction.
Lucky, Stanton’s final starring role and a swan song of sorts to the actor – who plays a semi-fictionalized version of himself in the film – opens in theaters September 29th following its SXSW premiere. The film also stars David Lynch, who paid tribute to Stanton in October 2016.
In Partly Fiction, Lynch asked his friend Stanton how he hoped his legacy would be remembered. “It doesn’t matter,” Stanton said.